The casual eavesdropper at the ubiquitous Bengaluru pub will pick up snatches of conversations centred around startups, funding, apps, coding, algorithms, automation and the like. As most entrepreneurs in India’s Silicon Valley look to the future for innovation, Karthik Vaidyanathan looked for inspiration in the past and has pulled it off with class and style. He has devoted himself to making the small artisans of Channapatna and their craft relevant in the 21st Century. The craft is lacquerware, whose uniqueness has earned it a GI (geographical indication) tag.
It was Mysore ruler Tipu Sultan, an aesthete himself, who introduced the Persian craft in Channapatna 200 years ago. In due course, with changed tastes, these eco-friendly toys were consigned to the back shelf until Karthik, with his social and entrepreneurial vision, made them cool again. In the process, he is enabling the revival of the art form – with a touch of modernity – through his store, Varnam Craft Collective.
Becoming a social entrepreneur
Perhaps the groundwork for his vocation was already there when this designer at heart chose a marketing career. Not that he was unhappy with his previous jobs. “I wouldn’t do it if I didn’t enjoy it, and thankfully I can say that about all the jobs I’ve held,” says the former General Manager of Content at ACT Television.
The transition from a structured corporate life to being a maverick within the design community didn’t happen overnight. On the contrary, Karthik's journey from conceptualising and executing content strategies to poring over sketchpads was grounded in conscious calculations, deliberations, plus a lot of courage.
Once appreciates his conviction when he says the absence of formal training in design had never spooked him when he started out. “I sketch on paper, and that’s how I’ve always done things.”
Backed by his passion, he dove straight into the world of colours, patterns and motifs. “I have always wanted to work in the crafts sector. Since I had a fulltime job at the time, I decided to help out, pro bono, at FabIndia, and that is how it started.”
This stint with FabIndia brought Karthik in touch with the Channapatna artisans. He had plans for them but there was starting trouble. “I kept going down to Channapatna and no one would take me seriously. More because I wasn’t a designer with a degree or promising the artisans work. Unfortunately, things were taking too long to roll for an impatient person like me.”
After four months of helping out in this town on the Bengaluru-Mysuru highway, he concluded he was better off on his own. After due legwork, he contacted a unit of women artisans who were willing to work with him. “The deal was that I would do the designs, they would manufacture, and I would buy them. [Of course,] I did not know at the time what I wanted to do with the products, and ended up buying almost Rs. 1 lakh worth!”
Thus, he was on his way to founding his own store, eventually named Varnam. He started small, with an exhibition at home for friends. Happily, what was an informal gathering to talk art and design turned out to be a hit. He hosted another exhibition for his colleagues at ACT, which was well received. Growing increasingly confident, he set up a modest store in the ground floor of his home, thence to a 400-sq ft basement, and now a flourishing establishment in one of the most affluent parts of Bengaluru.
It’s passion first
Ask him about his business vision six years on and Karthink self-deprecatingly confesses he still does not quite identify himself as an entrepreneur. “I never thought I was going to be one and still don’t think I’m very good at it either. I’m driven by passion. The entrepreneurial part comes with the territory.”
Increasingly, he finds himself consumed by Varnam’s operational requirements. “Unless I give the artisans regular work, they will leave the craft and do something else to sustain themselves.”
Prior to opening Varnam, he found marketing the products tough. Advertising them at other stores did not work. “They wanted specific items instead of the whole range. I’d have preferred to show everything new that we were making.” Finally, a dedicated store made sense to him. “It meant a steady flow of orders, and more room for creativity and experimentation.”
Today, between spending his weekends in Channapatna designing products, supervising production and meeting customers at the store, his life is a motion blur. In all this, he has to ideate and pen his sketches. “Design is my first passion and that is where my heart lies.”
He says his passion derives sustenance from the wonderstruck customers who walk into Varnam, “Their first reaction to this [riot] of colours, in addition to the realisation that this is a single craft in diverse manifestations, has always been a smile!”
As the principal designer, Karthik continues to push the envelope. “The idea is to make these traditional crafts relevant. That is only possible if you keep innovating, especially within a single craft form.” Varnam’s bestseller –Dasara dolls - is an example of his creative innovation.
Although a full-time entrepreneur now, he has not severed his 18-year association with the media industry. He loves his work there. Moreover, Varnam is a social enterprise. “You cannot be in this for a quick buck. It takes persistence.”
His advice to wannabe entrepreneurs? “Be smart about how you go chasing your rainbows.”